“I’m really pretty average and I didn’t think anyone would care about my life.” It’s difficult to imagine those words being written by James Garner, the 83-year-old film and TV actor so familiar for his performances in Maverick and The Rockford Files, as well as films The Americanization of Emily (1964), Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Murphy’s Romance (1985). That is, until you have read The Garner Files, the memoir he put together with quote collector Jon Winokur (The Portable Curmudgeon, 1987).
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Although this book can be candid at times (as when Garner talks about his absent father, his disinterest in the “Hollywood life” and his love/hate relationship with golf), it’s obvious that he’d be more comfortable presenting himself in a scripted role than bleeding his real life onto a page. Nonetheless, as the actor reminisces about his fellow performers, his years racing the Baja 1000, his political views and the legal battles he’s engaged in over six decades in Hollywood, he offers the same brand of wry commentary and unassuming charm associated with his on-screen characters.
Here, Garner talks to us about how his biography came about:
This book reads like a very long interview, addressing a series of topics. Is that in fact how the work was put together?
The Garner Files is a more or less chronological account of my life. Jon Winokur and I met twice a week over a period of about 18 months. We’d spend a few hours, with Jon asking questions, making notes and recording everything.
I read about your mother dying when you were just 4 years old, your father leaving you and your brothers in the care of Oklahoma relatives, and your having to put up with a “nasty bitch” of a stepmother at one point, and I can’t help thinking that someone with that background would describe himself as having endured a hard childhood. Do you think of it that way yourself?
I never thought of it as a “hard” childhood, though others have described it that way. Someone even called it “Dickensian.” But for me it was what it was. I didn’t know any different. Having to fend for myself at an early age taught me that nobody else was going to take care of me. Am I a stronger person because of it? Sure. But I think anybody who grew up during the Depression, in the Dust Bowl, is stronger for it.
It seems there was considerable serendipity involved in your becoming an actor. Can you tell us how that came about?
When I came home from [the Korean War] in 1953, I wound up in Los Angeles, laying carpets, which has to be one of the worst jobs there is. After about six months I got so desperate I drove down to San Pedro one day to apply for an oil-field job in Saudi Arabia. It turned out they were only hiring geologists. Driving up La Cienega Boulevard on the way home, I noticed a sign on a building: “Paul Gregory and Associates.” I’d known Paul since 1945, when I was working at a gas station in Hollywood and Paul was a soda jerk at the drugstore across the street. Paul kept telling me that I should be an actor. I didn’t take him seriously.
Eight years later, on my way back from Korea, I saw a story about Paul in Newsweek. He’d become a successful agent/producer with three simultaneous hits on Broadway. So when I saw the “Paul Gregory and Associates” sign I thought, Gee, maybe I ought to talk to him. At that instant, a woman pulled out of a parking space in front of the building, and I pulled in. If the parking space hadn’t opened up at that instant, I don’t think I’d have stopped.
I went inside and Paul remembered me. He offered to take me on as a client, and I decided to give it a try. I still wasn’t interested in acting, I just wanted a clean job for decent money. I was 25 years old and told myself I’d give it until I was 30 to see if I could make a living at it.
You say that you don’t act so much as you react. Can you explain the distinction and what it brings to your performances?
I’ll take a “reactor” over an actor every time. A reactor is always listening. You hear what the other actors are saying and you’re engaged in the scene. You stay with the dialogue, you don’t anticipate it. Listening to every word and seeing the reaction to it helps you remember your own lines. Otherwise, you’re just standing there like a dope waiting for your turn to talk.
You write that just as Maverick killed the genre of western TV series, The Rockford Files killed private-eye shows. How do you figure?
Both Maverick and Rockford turned their respective genres upside down, and I don’t think audiences looked on those other shows the same way afterward. Or maybe the irreverence of Maverick and Rockford were just symptoms that Westerns and private eye shows had run their course. Whatever the reason, they went out of business.
You made the film Marlowe in 1969 (based on Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister) and you’re famous for Rockford, both of which are detective fiction. But do you read crime fiction as well? What other books do you enjoy?
I’m a big Elmore Leonard fan. Nobody writes dialogue better. I also like James Ellroy, Ken Follett, James Patterson, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum. At the moment I’m reading Water for Elephants and enjoying it. One of my favorite books is a collection of Jim Murray’s [Los Angeles Times] columns. I knew Jim and played golf with him. I think he’s one of the best sports writers we’ve ever had.
And I’m in love with Laura Hillenbrand. I read Unbroken first and then Seabiscuit. She’s a truly marvelous writer. After reading in the Seabiscuit acknowledgments that Jonathan Karp, our editor at Simon & Schuster, had been Laura’s editor, I wrote her a letter in care of Jonathan and we’ve corresponded since.
You write that Adlai Stevenson and Barack Obama are the two most intelligent presidential candidates the United States has ever had. What are your views on Obama’s presidency and his Republican opposition?
The Republicans ought to be horse-whipped for putting their own selfish interests above the country’s. They shoot down everything Obama proposes, but don’t offer a solution. What happened to “bipartisanship”? The next election is still a long way off, so I won’t make any predictions, but I do know one thing—I’ ll be voting for Obama again.
Given your on-screen persona, it might surprise readers to hear that you can display a rather volatile temper. What’s the source of that? And do you think you have that irritability under control now?
Yes, I have a bad temper, and I don’t have a clue where it comes from. I have a high boiling point. It takes a lot to get my goat. But it can be got. I’ve slugged a few guys over the years. And I was a terror on the golf course. Used to throw clubs when I got mad. I think one is still in the air. But my real specialty was burying an iron. Give me some damp turf and I could sink it so deep, nobody could get it out.